The Biden administration says it’s working with the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador to combat a documented rise in the availability and lethality of illegal drugs containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the potency of pills is rising — in 2022, six out of 10 pills contained a potentially lethal dose of the narcotic.
President Joe Biden mentioned the deadly drug in his recent State of the Union address, in which he spoke of “a record number of personnel working to secure the border, arresting 8,000 human smugglers, seizing over 23,000 pounds of fentanyl in just the last several months.”
And Biden outlined his administration’s plan to tackle the epidemic in different ways, including funding screening measures, checking packages and “expanding access to evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery.”
VOA’s Jorge Agobian spoke to Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to find out how the U.S. is battling the overdose epidemic both inside and beyond its borders.
“The problem of fentanyl and synthetic drugs is not limited exclusively to the United States or Mexico,” Gupta said. “It's a global problem. And secondly, the supply chain is also global. So whether it's precursor chemicals that are converted into fentanyl, coming from China into Mexico or North America, or the synthesis of these drugs, we need to be making sure that we're monitoring all of it, and we're addressing specific choke points in this supply chain.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: A key component of President Biden's State of the Union address was the fentanyl crisis. What next steps will the administration take on this issue?
Dr. Rahul Gupta: Fentanyl is killing 70,000 Americans a year overall as part of the overdose crisis. It is a top priority for President Biden to address that. It's important for us to make sure we have an education campaign, especially for children, to be aware and understand that they have the power to not only be aware about this deadly threat, but also maybe carry Naloxone, the antidote for it so they can help their friends and others.
Also, what we can do is to ensure that we have the treatment available to everybody who needs it. We know that far too many Americans today aren't able to get the treatment. So along with the antidote, we’ve got to get more people into treatment, and he talked about how he had challenged Congress the year before about removing barriers to doctors to prescribing, and he worked in a bipartisan manner with both sides of Congress to get that to happen. And he signed that into law.
He also talked about how there's controlling of the fentanyl-related substances already, but it's temporary we need to make that permanent.
President Biden highlighted how we have through the highest levels of fentanyl seizures at the border — twice as much as 2020 and four times as much in 2019. Why? Because we've implemented technology to be able to detect more, but the problem doesn't begin or end at the border. We have to work with Mexico.
VOA: What in this strategy is the role of Mexico cooperating with the United States? And how much does the United States rely on Mexico to prosecute?
Gupta: People in Mexico are dying from overdoses and poisoning from fentanyl just like in America. So it's very important that we work with a shared sense of responsibility, to make sure that we're working to secure our country to make sure that we're going after the bad guys who are intending harming Americans as well as Mexicans at the same time, we're working on enhancing public health treatment, and the antidote Naloxone or Narcan and make it available to anyone who needs it.
We have made sure that we're providing as much assistance to Mexico in partnership as a key player in helping us, but we also want to make sure that we’re holding traffickers, manufacturers and others accountable for their actions by preying on vulnerable people. It's important because we want to make sure that they're not making profits off the back of unsuspecting people who are dying and being poisoned. So it's important whether it is in the United States or across the border, that our governments hold bad actors accountable in a forceful way.
VOA: Does the White House believe that the war on drugs is ‘a failed campaign,’ as the president of Colombia has called it?
Gupta: When President (Gustavo) Petro was inaugurated in Colombia early last year, I went, as the first delegation from the United States. We had a long and good conversation, and I said to him, “Look, we recognize that not all policies have been proven to be successful of the United States. But the important part is that we have a problem where an American is dying every 5 minutes around the clock. You have a problem where the economy is dependent, a lot, on cocaine production. We need to work with our 200-year relationship productively to see how we can secure a future both for the American people and the Colombian people.’”
And we need to see the way forward which is humane, which is protective of the environment.
And we need to figure out how to get people gainful employment, give hope, and the ability to have economic development as a way to address this. And that's exactly some of the things that we're going to be working with countries like Colombia.
VOA: What about the other countries in the Western Hemisphere?
Gupta: We know that these profits and the drugs don't only kill Americans, but the profits go back to cause more destabilization, more crime and corruption and violence. It’s very important for us as a global leader to continue to work as good partners with other countries across Latin America. And there's a history of us working with them, but to make sure that we're doing in a way that yields us results, mutual respect and mutual cooperation. So we can hold the bad actors accountable, while ensuring that people everywhere have a chance to live safely, securely and healthy.
VOA: And finally, what about Venezuela? There is no cooperation between the two governments, of course, but Venezuela is still a key player in all these industries.
Gupta: We’re going to continue to focus with our partners in Colombia, and as well as Ecuador, to make sure that people there are getting the support when it comes to both the people coming in from Venezuela as well as resources. And then that work will continue, you know, as far as so I don't have anything new to report on that at this point, from a policy perspective.
Anita Powell contributed to this report.
The World Health Organization says there are three common signs and symptoms of an overdose: pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness and difficulties with breathing.
For the unfamiliar, fentanyl goes by several nicknames. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists several commonly used in the U.S.: Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, and Tango & Cash. (HN/VOA)